James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, March 07, 2011

Tea partiers to kids: Don't get uppity

It is truly strange to see crowds of middle class Americans out to commit economic suicide by fighting for the very rich plutocrats who are carving away their freedoms and draining their pockets.

But, then, there are many puzzling aspects to the “tea party” phenomenon.

One of the overlooked questions that nagged at me until very recently is the fact that most of those who have been bamboozled by right wing propaganda seem entirely unconcerned that their children and grandchildren are being priced out of a college education. None of the corporate “news” media have asked any of the suckers about that, to my knowledge.

In fact, second-rate and even third-rate colleges already are beyond the means of millions of Americans, and the genuinely good universities are priced so far beyond the ability of most people to pay that they are now pretty much reserved for the rich -- and a few awesomely brilliant scholarship kids, of course.

No one, least of all university administrators, even remembers the purpose of land-grant universities and how they came to be. I don't hear anyone asking why schools that cannot exist without billions of tax dollars are being priced so that the majority of young people can't afford them.

State universities, like private colleges, are increasingly only for the very well off, and rapidly headed for the status of rich-kid sanctuaries.

(Land grant colleges-- most of which now are universities -– were established by acts of Congress in 1862 and 1890. Essentially, under those acts the federal government gave states land which the states could develop or sell to raise money to endow colleges. The colleges were to specialize in agriculture, science and engineering, but the missions were greatly broadened over the years. The land-grant laws have been revised at least 20 times to give the schools more breadth and depth. Many, probably most, state universities, including my alma mater, would not exist were it not for those laws. The endowments still function.)

People with little money are shunted into community colleges, which, to be blunt, are basically trade schools for people who will, if they are lucky, get middling white collar jobs and never advance beyond the office equivalent of foreman. (I know: It's another truth we're not supposed to recognize.) A few very sharp individuals will transcend that arc, of course, but that doesn't change the basic facts.

If things had been in the 1950s as they are now, neither I nor a majority of my closest friends of similar age would have obtained college educations.

But the people who ride buses chartered by the Koch brothers and carry signs calling Barack Obama a Nazi very obviously don't give a damn about education.


I recently remembered something I learned when I was a 19- or 20-year-old student at the University of Minnesota.

One of the many myths of this country is that Americans want their kids to do better in life than they have done.

As Ira Gershwin put it: It ain't necessarily so.

The fact is that a whole lot of people, generally from blue-collar communities and, especially, rural areas, emphatically do not want their offspring to advance substantially, either socially or economically. They won't often admit that, but it's a truth I learned from the offspring of blue collar families, and rural people, of my generation. And from their parents.

Periodically, I do a little asking around to see if that has changed. It has not.

(I come from an entirely blue-collar family, by the way, and my parents were skeptical about my going to college, mainly but not entirely because even at the very low cost of a public university in those days, money was a very big issue. I paid at least 90 percent of my own living and university expenses through part-time and multiple summer jobs; that is impossible for a poor kid today, no matter how hard he or she works.)

My curiosity about lack of parental support among my poorer fellow students began when I had ingested several newspaper stories, printed over a couple of years, that included comments from people in rural areas about how they really didn't want their children to go to the big bad University of Minnesota and their fears about those children taking on the ways of the city and losing their “good, small-town values.”

It was a topic that showed up with surprising frequency in stories originating in what Minnesotans call “out state” areas -- that is, outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

So I asked quite a few of the many “out state” kids I knew at the university whether the newspaper stories showed an attitude really held by their parents and people in the communities where they were raised.

My fellow students were surprised by the question; the affirmative answer was so obvious, they thought, that it amounted to a universal truth. It was something a majority of them had to contend with.

Many parents from rural Minnesota towns such as Crookston and Fergus Falls and Montevideo were willing to have their kids attend one of the little public colleges in those or other small towns. Those with money often were willing to pay to send their kids to very expensive but academically superior small colleges in yet other small towns – Carleton, say, or St. Olaf – especially if they were run by religious denominations. A lesser number would even sanction the substantial and growing St. Cloud State University or University of Minnesota-Duluth, with or without a fight first.

But the University of Minnesota's main campuses in the Twin Cities? A whole lot of parents fought against that, often to the point of saying they'd rather the kids didn't go to college at all. And some, of course, just thought that small or big, cheap or expensive, college was “a waste of time,” and would “do more harm than good.”

I pushed on the questions when I visited friends out state, or took long weekends in the country, and when I had a summer job in a small town. People, including parents of my fellow students, quite readily confirmed what the students already had told me: College in general “made kids think they're better than their parents,” and “made them get above themselves.”

Attending big schools that pushed general scholarship, as opposed to just career training, meant that kids “lost their good small-town values” and “forgot their religion” and “taught them to sneer at morality,” and the like.

That has changed some, of course, as people have seen more of the world, mainly through the eyes of television. But those attitudes and that fear of the wider world and wider knowledge still are common. And, as the world seems every more frightening to people who want nothing to change, resistance to knowledge and education seems to be regaining much of the power it lost in the 20th century.

It's a scary world to people who think American should be always white, that power belongs in the hands of white men, and that old-time Christian religion should be forever followed by all Americans.

And then, of course, there is the dirty little secret that has existed all along, certainly since long before I became a freshman at the University of Minnesota: A surprising number of people are jealous of their kids who learn more and earn more; and they take their kids' new lives as a rejection of themselves and their way of life.

That's what I came to understand after much questioning and prying into the thoughts and feelings of others. Also, of course, education tends to scatter families; the kids move to where the jobs are.

Though they sometimes won't admit it, some people are happier when the young don't go off to learn different things and to be taught to accept other values and other ways of living. Those who worry that decent health care for all is “communist socialism” and are horrified to see a black man who is not the butler in the White House are almost sure to be the same people who want their kids to stay home and stay ignorant.

Kids can't afford college? That's good.

One more thing: I've traveled extensively much of my life, and something else I know that applies here: Minnesota is, and long has been, less provincial in many ways, including those discussed here, than most of the deep South, or Kansas, or much of the West. And pockets of such anti-learning bias can be found in every state.